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30 Days Wild Blog - Peter's Experience

Peter's 30 Days Wild

Peter Lewis-Jones is a keen nature lover who freely admits that he is still learning all the time about the wild world around him. He is using the 30 Days Wild challenge to broaden his horizons, while at the same time, trying to get his less than enthusiastic sons involved.

30 Days Wild – it’s nearly time

’30 Days Wild’ wasn’t a new idea to me as I’d half-heartedly given it a go last year but I’m pretty sure I never made it past the first week! Of course, it was the usual excuses that conspired against me; a lack of time, energy and imagination and a bunch of less than enthusiastic kids. Added up, I was doomed to fail from the start. It was a shame though as I really like the idea; a few minutes set aside each day to try and reconnect with nature. I also really like the idea of getting my boys to put down their tablets and phones for a few minute and notice the world beyond their screens.

The more I thought about participating this year, the keener I became. Perhaps writing down my experiences in this blog will provide the extra motivation I was lacking last year. So I’m going to go for it!

30 Days Wild is all about simple things, challenges that would rarely take more than half an hour or so. But my mind was already racing. Snowdonia, I’d always fancied climbing that. And how about Kayaking around the coast of Anglesey? Mountain biking – surely that could be on the list. Of course, there’d be a few ‘simple things’ too but I’d decided that adventure was the way forward. Besides, I’ve got boys aged 14, 11 and 8 to inspire.

But then I went and ruptured my Achilles tendon last week playing football. A small explosion in the heel of my right leg and the prospect of the next five weeks in plaster, which, of course, takes us neatly up to the end of June and ’30 Days Wild’. Time to rethink.

I wasn’t going to back out now. But suddenly my focus had narrowed down to the confines of my house and back garden. Luckily, I have a garden. One, in fact, that I have spent the last year and a half making wildlife friendly. I have a small wild flower ‘meadow’, a tiny pond, a few fruit trees, a well-stocked bird feeder and a pair of crutches. This is my ammunition for the next four weeks.

And I’m even more determined to do it! I’m sure there are 30 challenges waiting there, maybe even more. And after all, this is the spirit of ’30 Days Wild’. So stick around and see – the idea is to blog every day about what I’ve been up to. And, of course, I’ll be interested to see what ideas you are trying too – just post them on social media using #30DaysWild.
 


Day 1 – Identify a flower

Nice and easy task to start off with so I thought. And something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I planted my wild flower garden two winters ago. With the soil nicely prepared I’d bought three packets of mixed wild flower seed and scattered all 20,000 or so seeds over it. I’d then sat back and waited. What came up over the following months exceeded all expectations; an array of flowers I could only have dreamed of. The problem was that apart from the obvious poppy here and there I had no idea on the whole what I was looking at. I was rather regretting having thrown away the packets which listed all the seeds they contained. I tried to identify a few but gave up and decided to just enjoy the flowers that summer. At the end of the season, I cut back all the dead growth and this spring I decided to see what came up naturally.

One of the suggestions in this year’s 30 Days Wild is ‘identify a wild flower’; the perfect excuse to start cataloguing my garden. Several flowers have already made an appearance – strangely though, none that I recognise from last year. The idea is that each time a new flower blooms, I look it up. Simple really.

Having spent much of the last ten years trying to learn my birds, I thought flowers would be a doddle, if not for anything else but the fact that they tend to sit quite still. It turns out it’s not so easy. Firstly, it appears that there are far more wild flowers than I’d ever imagined. Furthermore, they can look incredibly similar. For example, what I had always called a daisy could in fact be one of several dozen flowers, it seems.

Anyway I’m enjoying the challenge. It’s taking longer than I thought it would but there is a sense of achievement and with each one, I do feel a step closer to nature. If only I could remember the names!

Anyway, after much deliberation, I’ve decided that today’s flower is a red campion. If you have other ideas it’s probably best to keep them to yourself, at least for today. 


Day 2 – Checking on the tadpoles

I didn’t think there was really room for a pond in our garden but we put one in anyway. I’d read it was important to have a source of water even if it is nothing more than a washing-up bowl (without the dishes I presume). So we dug out a small hole, put in some liner, filled it with water and waited. That turned out to be the easy part. The hard bit, it seemed, was getting myself out to the shops to buy a net with which to investigate the murky depths of the water. That took me nearly a year!

Anyway, we now finally have one and it has opened the doors to a wondrous world of miniature wildlife. I’ll do a full pond dipping post another day but I wanted to write a little about my favourite inhabitants before they’ve all hopped away.

The frog spawn was deposited in the pond a fair few weeks ago now. It just magically appeared one day - floating close the edge. The kids were almost excited, especially when they oozed it gently through their fingers. Fun though it was my youngest seemed reluctant to believe these tiny dots would one day be frogs.

About a week later the spawn disappeared, as silently as it arrived. I wondered if it had been eaten by a sly heron but then my middle son pointed out that maybe it had just hatched. And that’s when I finally went out and bought a net.

A few swipes through the pond and his suspicions were confirmed. Half a dozen tadpoles wriggled amongst the debris in the bottom of the net. My youngest was impressed but was still not convinced this was really a frog in waiting.

Since then we’ve periodically returned to disturb the poor creatures. But then watching a tadpole develop must surely be one of the top ten nature ‘musts’ for any child. For a couple of weeks noth

ing much happened. They only seemed to get more and more bloated. And then the back legs appeared. 

Today we fished out a couple, for the challenge. Legs all present and correct. There is no doubting now that this is a mini-frog with a tail. My youngest is a believer!


Day 3 – A bird count

Three days in and I’m already backing out. Well, that’s not strictly true; taking a back seat would be a fairer description. Having been inside all day, the boys were clearly in need of some exercise. As I explained in the introduction to this blog, I am currently on crutches so it was up to my wife to take them out and run off the excess energy along the canal towpath. I just had the great idea of setting them today’s task – ‘Don’t return before you’ve seen twenty different species of bird’ I shouted after them.

It’s two and a half hours later and they’ve just returned with a list of 20 they assure me. I ask to see it but apparently it’s all in their heads. They’re going to dictate it to me. Obviously they’re too tired from the walk to type up today’s post themselves.

First up were house sparrows, great tits, blue tits, blackbirds and a robin, which they got from the feeder without leaving the house. I’ll let them off – I’m not that mean.

On arriving at the canal, they tell me, they almost stepped on a heron, it was that close. It was clearly the best bird of the day and the one they talk about with the most enthusiasm. A close second seems to have been the mallards and moorhens but mainly because of their entourages of chicks.

They then reel off a list of the bigger more obvious birds, crows, magpies, black-headed gulls and wood pigeons. They seem more impressed though with the dead pigeon they found on the path and delight in outdoing each other with their description of it.

They also got a flock of twenty or so starlings sat upon the telephone wires; ‘a murmuration in waiting’ as my middle one describes them - knowing the m-word will impress me. That was followed by a mute swan. ‘How did you know it was a mute swan?’ I ask. ‘Because he didn’t say anything.’ answers the eldest – he never lets me down. There’s then a bit of a debate whether the blue bird was a swallow or a kingfisher. I try to explain they’re really quite different and go to get the bird book. They’re gone when I return. ‘That’s only 14 by my reckoning.’ I shout up the empty staircase. But they’re not coming back. There’s always tomorrow …


Day 4 – Pulling Out Cleavers

One of the greatest attractions of a wild flower garden is it needs very little looking after. This means you’ve got far more time to sit back in the deckchair and relax.

I made the decision fairly early on that, apart from a few exceptions which we will come back to later, I was fairly happy to let whatever grew grow. I wasn’t going to start worrying about things being in the right place. In truth, I really had no idea what the right place was or indeed what should be in it. Clearly, I don’t expect to be winning any awards at the Chelsea flower show. That’s not to say the garden is not pretty – in full bloom it’s wonderful!

But anyway, back to those exceptions. The two plants I do try and keep under control are the nettles and the cleavers. I’ll pick up on nettles in a future post. Today’s focus is on the cleaver, or goose grass or sticky weeds or whatever you want to call it.

And why have I got it in for the cleavers? Arguably in a wild flower garden they’ve got as much right as any other plant to be there. Well, I’ve decided they haven’t. I’ve read up on them and I can’t really find any evidence of anything they actually bring to the party. They certainly don’t attract the bees, my primary aim in planting the garden. Besides, they grow too quickly and step on other more patient plants in their quest to rise above and conquer.

But the real reason I decided to weed them out is because they’re just so much fun to pluck from their roots. If you grab them at the right height, about one third plant length from the top and apply just the right amount of force in the right direction, you can feel them ‘pop’ out of the ground and glide their sticky path up the stems of surrounding plants until they run free. For more fun secretly attach a bunch of them to a family member’s back!

Not the most demanding challenge but very enjoyable. Oh and don’t worry about the cleavers – they will be back!


Day 5 – New Face at the Feeder

As part of my ‘30 Days Wild’ I’ve been keeping a log of the birds that come to my garden feeder.

I’ve had my feeding station up for a few months now. It currently offers sunflower hearts, suet nibbles, half coconut shells stuffed full with a suet/seed mix along with a suet cake and suet balls. I rather hope birds like suet!

I’ve also put out the smaller nyjer seeds that so far have had no takers, which is slightly unfortunate since I optimistically ordered a 12.75kg bag of them along with a special dispenser. Supposedly they’re popular with the brightly coloured goldfinch. Maybe word just hasn’t got out yet? But I won’t give hope.

It was a while before my suet based selection took off but now there’s no holding the birds back. It must be feeding half the house sparrows in the neighbourhood along with plenty of starlings, robins and a few blue and great tits, while on the ground wood pigeons, blackbirds and dunnocks happily pick up anything that falls to the floor.

c. Amy LewisThe very first birds that came to visit were a pair of greenfinch. They came for two days but then disappeared, which is a shame as they’re not so commonly seen. Of the larger birds, occasionally a magpie will comically try and balance on the feeding cage. They never seem to have much success!

Today when I glanced out of the living room window I saw what I initially assumed was a magpie but it seemed to be clinging on more victoriously. Then I noticed a flash of red mixed amongst the black and white. I knew immediately this was no ordinary magpie – it was in fact a Greater Spotted Woodpecker. I immediately hushed in my youngest to take a look. Surely he’d be impressed with a woodpecker. I waved him silently towards the window for a better look. Stealth is not his strength, however. The woodpecker took flight but not before he’d seen it and muttered a half enthusiastic ‘cool’. Maybe there is hope. 


Day 6 – Cleaning up

Does cleaning up pigeon poo count as a ‘30 Days Wild’ task? Having spent the best (or should that be worst) part of an hour doing so, I’ve decided it does. Juggling a broom and hosepipe while balancing on crutches definitely made it a challenge and it certainly bought me close to nature - perhaps a little closer than I’d have liked.

I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of wood pigeons as birds. They have a subtle beauty that is all too often overlooked; a warm pinkish breast, a sparkling turquoise and white neck and a really funky yellow eye ring. And they seem to genuinely love each other too, if the activity on my fence is anything to go by. But like many people I have a problem with them, though it’s all of my own making.

My ‘pigeon problem’ is in fact a perfect lesson in why you should always think through your plans before executing them. Though we had decided to hand our garden over to wildlife, we had hoped to retain one little corner where we could sit and enjoy an outdoor meal when the weather allowed it. To this purpose we paved an area of the lawn and put a picnic table on it.

After a few days it became apparent that we should have looked up before we started digging. Our table sits directly below the only large tree we have in the back garden; a tree it would appear the pigeons really like sitting in and from Anyone for a picnic?which they are too lazy to leave when nature calls. Consequently, within a week our table and paving were covered in a layer of pigeon poo. Of course we cleaned it up, but it kept coming back, as I suppose it would.

We’ve temporarily abandoned all hope of dining al fresco as we’ve become too weary in our fight against the muck. Unfortunately, the longer you leave it, the firmer it sticks and the harder it is to remove. A good onslaught of rain softens it best and since this week so far has been little else but rain, I thought I’d kill two birds (not literally I hasten to add) with one broom. Clean up the mess and then write about it for the blog. And it worked. I now have today’s entry and somewhere to eat outside.

Of course, by the time it’s dry enough to eat outside again, the pigeons I’m sure, will have once more left their mark! 


Day 7– Eating nature

Potentially the ‘wildest’ of the challenges yet. I noticed today an unusual globular protuberance which had forced its way up through some wood chip we’d laid around the tree in the front garden. On closer inspection it was clearly some kind of fungi.

‘Mushroom identification’ I thought, ‘that’s different’. The mushroom had a particularly distinct appearance, that of a heavily cratered, misshapen moon, which made it easy to find in my Octopus book of Plants and Animals, which I’ve had since I was seven. It was a morel mushroom. Further Internet investigation confirmed my conclusion, it also threw up the fact that ‘morels are prized by gourmet cooks’. Suddenly today’s challenge became a whole lot more interesting than simply looking up a mushroom in a book.

Of course, I doubly, trebly and quadrupley checked that it was what it was. My research also uncovered some of the nastier effects the wrong kind of mushroom can inflict on the body - anything from ‘slight gastrointestinal discomfort to death’.

I decided to err on the side of caution. I sliced off the tiniest of slithers, fried it to a charcoal and ate it. Four hours later and with no discernible adverse effects, I decided to enjoy the rest more kindly prepared on a piece of toast. It was delicious. It had a woody almost meaty flavour with a freshness you can surely only get from eating something directly from the ground. I also felt smugly Bear Gryllish.

I’m not sure why but I went back to re-researching the effects of poisonous mushrooms. There are a few I’ve just discovered that only start their internal rampage through your organs after a few days. Now my smugness is a little tainted with uneasiness. I guess if I’m not posting tomorrow, you’ll know why.


Day 8 – Catching up

Having got through the night with no major bathroom drama I’m feeling more confident that I’ve got away with yesterday’s culinary adventure! However, we’re not completely out of the woods yet, so I’ve decided to take it easy today. Besides the weather’s foul too. So this morning it’s a bit of nature reading with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

This decision has been inspired by the arrival of my copy of the Neotropical Birding Club magazine in the post. I’m a member of this club because in a former life I was lucky enough to spend 14 years living in South East Brazil. In fact, it was there that my love of birds, which had lain dormant since I was 11, reawoke - but only truly after I’d been living there for five years.

We’d moved from the city of Rio de Janeiro up to the mountains and were living on the edge of pristine Atlantic rain forest. Pottering around the garden, I couldn’t help but notice the amazing variety and beauty of the local birds. There were families with which I was familiar and could recognise immediately; toucans, woodpeckers, kingfishers, owls, hummingbirds, etc, but I was soon to be introduced to species that I had no idea even existed! And the birds were as exotic as their names; cotingas, tanagers, manikins, trogons, chlorophonias and euphonias to name just a few. Over the next seven years I got to know as many of these as I could but there are hundreds to discover and still many wait patiently on my ‘to see’ list.

Coincidently, it turns out, a large part of this edition of the magazine is devoted to the birds of the area where we lived and includes a guide to several locations I’ve never visited. We’re going back in the summer for our holidays. Plans for several day trips are already being made. Just no need to tell the rest of the family about them yet.


Day 9 – Getting stung (on purpose)

I was out renewing my battle with the cleavers today (see day 4 for full details!) which had taken advantage of the rain and my laziness to make ground in our ongoing turf war. Consequently the undergrowth is a fair bit thicker so my hands were often working blind as they searched for the stems of my sticky foe. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before I felt a sharp sting and withdrew my hand in haste. Hidden nettles it seemed have joined forces with the enemy!

They’re funny things nettle stings. Before I embarked on my wild flower experiment, I had gone years and years without being stung. I’d completely forgotten the sensation. But then as I got more involved in gardening I started getting reminders. The first time I was reacquainted I was momentarily unsure what had happened. It was a sensation that I knew I knew, but I couldn’t quite place. A bit like bumping into an old school friend after twenty years or so and not being able to put a name to the face for a while.

Of course, when I looked down and saw the plant it all fell into place. And with it memories of being a child came flooding back; not precise memories but rather a sensory memory of mucking about in the fields behind my house. As a child growing up in the Shropshire countryside barely a day went by without me getting stung. I then realised that I’d been away from nature far too long! Sure, I’ve been out bird watching in recent years but this is usually through the safe distance of binocular lenses. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to have fun and really get my hands dirty.

But back to nettle stings. As I said; they’re funny things. Painful, yes but in a strange sort of way quite enjoyable too. Or is that just me? Maybe I’ll try and test my theory out on the boys when they get back from school. After my involuntary brush with one earlier I decided today’s challenge would be to deliberately get stung so I decided to pick the nettle. My hand really didn’t want to do it. Self-preservation instincts kicked in. But I disengaged my brain and went for it. Ouch, I’m not sure why I did that.


Day 10 – Fledglings

I was watching a blackbird shoving food down her recently fledged young this morning and couldn’t help feeling it wasn’t so different from me getting my youngest’s porridge into him when we’re rushed on a school morning. It also reminded me of an incident that happened a couple of weeks before ’30 Days Wild’ started but one I hope you’ll allow me to use today.

A few weeks ago my eldest had a surprise for us when he arrived home from school. I knew something was up when he didn’t fling his bag on the hall floor and head straight for his tablet. Instead he gathered us to the kitchen in hushed tones, his hand firmly yet gently clasped around something obviously quite precious.

He opened them to reveal a young bird, not quite capable of flight yet, huddled snugly in the warmth of his palms. He had rescued it from the claws of two cats that had been moving in on it as it floundered on the pavement. And now here it was in our home.

An emergency convening of the house committee was called and it was decided that the bird was now our responsibility. Various working models of a new ‘nest’ for it were presented before we opted for a couple of woolly socks in a shoebox. A saucer of water and some suet treats were also presented but it seemed interested in neither, much to the worry of my eldest.

That evening I did some Internet research. The overwhelming opinion was that a young bird should never be separated from its parents. I started to think we may have taken the wrong approach. The next morning the bird was still alive but decidedly less energetic. We were, I felt, on borrowed time.

While the boys were at school, I took the bird back to the area where my son told me he had found it, and placed it on a branch in the depths of a bush. It seemed to perk up and as I left I saw adult birds hoping about nearby. We have our fingers firmly crossed.


Day 11 – Burying an animal

We had a death in the garden today! After weeks of celebrating the amazing spawn – tadpole - frog life cycle, we were brought back down to earth with a bump.

We had planned to do a proper pond dipping challenge but that will have to wait because there in amongst the duck weed we spied a larger than usual object in the water. As it was immobile, I assumed it was a bit of tree and I told the middle one to fish it out. He did so but soon informed me that this bit of tree had arms and legs. It also had an open mouth with a tongue poking out. It clearly wasn’t a log but a frog and a dead one at that. It was very rigid. Forensically speaking I believe we could say that riga mortis had set in meaning time of death was a while ago.

We weren’t too sure what to think at first. There was a mixture of intrigue with a little revulsion. In the end curiosity won out. I find that my boys have pretty strong stomachs for this sort of thing on the whole. The conversation soon turned to why exactly it was dead. Apart from the protruding tongue there were no signs of foul play. No injury to the skin. The boys had plenty of theories. Could it simply have drowned? Is that even possible? Can a frog drown? Maybe it had died of old age. From the look on its face and the way its limbs seemed frozen in time, it could have been quite literally scared to death. Had it, while jumping from a rock, looked up to see a heron’s bill poised to strike and dropped dead in its tracks? Was the pond contaminated? That one scared me but a few dips with the net showed it was still teaming with life.

Then my middle son had a truly original idea for a ’30 Days Wild’ challenge – ‘how about doing a post mortem?’ I had to explain what this was to the little one and he seemed quite keen. The eldest looked a little green in the face. ‘What if we just bury it?’ he suggested. That sounded good to me so we dug a little hole and popped the frog in - burying the mystery of his death along with him.


Day 12 - Lego models

Back to the boys for today’s challenge. We haven’t had a go at an arty one yet so I had the brainwave of combining their love of Lego with my love of birds. I poked my head around the living room door. Various screen glowed in the half-light. ‘I want a Lego bird from each of you by the end of the day.’ It was met with a resounding silence.

Half an hour later and no sign of any Lego activity. So I went back in and restated my request, this time with the addition of a bribe in the form of an undefined treat for any completed model. The youngest two seemed almost interested. The middle one was even keener when I assured him that his bird could indeed have weapons! He took the little one by the hand and disappeared upstairs into their bedroom. The eldest grunted and told me he had revision for a test to do. He disappeared upstairs too.

Ten minutes later and the middle one re-emerged. He’d finished! I told him that I intended to post a photo of his creation on-line and that if he, as a want-to-be future Lego designer, was happy to have his name attached to the bare minimum of a model with which he presented me - then his task was over. It worked and he went back in to ‘up-grade’ as he calls it. I followed behind. In the same time the little one had attached two bricks together and was getting frustrated. I told him the bricks he had chosen were the perfect start and sat down to offer some help. This clearly was not going to be skive-off I’d had in mind…

We got there in the end. As promised the middle one came up with a bird fit for battle complete with missiles that launch from under the wings and a seat upon his back from which a warrior pilots him. The little one and I have created something that could be described as an owl/albatross hybrid. It’s certainly something I’d be quite excited if I ever saw in the wild!

To my surprise the eldest handed me a couple of models when he came to say goodnight. Mini-interpretations of an emperor penguin and his albino mate. I was impressed but then I remembered he’d made these a few years ago from an idea in a Lego book. Still he’d managed to dig them out from somewhere in his room and given the state of his room that in itself was truly impressive!


Day 13 - Water lilies

Whereas the front of our garden is devoted to encouraging wildlife, which conveniently means it’s allowed to look a mess - we’ve gone for a more formal look for the back garden. Perversely, it is through the back garden that you reach our house, so obviously wanting to impress friends, the postman and other delivery personnel we’ve put down paving, gravel and an ornate pond. None of this was ever really planned!

A good friend of mine is doing the actual work and between us, we’re just sort of making it up as we go along. Neither of us is in any real hurry but we’re slowly getting there. One day it will have plants.

The pond was a real impulse decision or maybe a moment of madness – time will tell. It has no real reason to be there expect maybe as an obstacle to inconvenience any late night snoopers wanting to nab another bike from the garage. There’s a high probability they could step into it in a bid to make a hasty getaway, but except for a soggy sock, there’s no real damage it could do.

I spent weeks weighing up whether or not the back garden pond was a good idea or not and I’m still not 100% sure. But we went for it and now it’s here. For the past week, since we filled it up, it’s been looking rather bleak and empty. So today’s ’30 Days Wild’ challenge was all about how to ‘cheer up the pond’ and this was easily achieved with a quick trip to an aquatic garden centre. We’ve gone with water lilies, one of which came with a flower in full bloom. Of course, they need time to grow and spread their pads but if they produce more flowers like this beauty, then maybe the pond will turn out to be a good idea.

There is only one small problem though. The label on the lilies says to plant in depths of between 30 - 90cm. Our pond has a mere 22cm of water from top to bottom. As I said, no real planning has gone into this garden. Hopefully that will end up being a good thing!


Day 14 - Counting bees

The first day of sunshine for a while and a chance to get out and do one of the tasks still left over from the original list I drew up – taking a bee census.

The main reason I decided to plant a wild flower garden was to do my bit for the bees. I’d read about the decline of these insects over recent years and the potentially disastrous impact an absence of them would have; anything from the destruction of whole crop systems to the annihilation of the human race.

Regardless of the exact extent of the destruction the extinction of bees may or may not cause, losing any species from our world is never going to be a good thing. So planting some bee friendly flowers seemed the very least I could do. And it worked too! Within a couple of months of sowing the seeds, the first flowers were blooming and with them, the bees started to appear. Slowly at first but as more and more flowers opened their petals, more and more bees lined up to take advantage. I’m pretty sure now, they know they can count on our garden for a pollen refill.

So today I decided to go for a bee count. Not as easy as it seems as they refuse to keep still and I’m too easily distracted by other things such as cleavers that need extracting. 

Eventually I decided the best place for an overview was from my picnic bench (freshly cleaned of pigeon poo – see day 6) which gives a view of the garden from above; not that the bees were any more still from a distance, in fact they’re quite a bit smaller, but at least I wasn’t able to do any weeding. 

I’ve gone for an estimate in the end. I reckon there’s anything between 15 -20 bees busily pollinating away along with a few dozen other stripy hovering insects. The next job is trying to identify the various species because even I can see they’re not all the same. That can wait for another day…

 


Day 15 – Watching swifts

I’ve been watching swifts for the past 15 minutes. I didn’t really intend to this. I had had every intention of doing some work. The problem is I’m too easily distracted. 

I work from home from an office in the attic. It’s light and airy. That light is supplied through two Velux windows set into the roof. They’re inclined at a 30° angle with the sky. Apart from the clouds rolling by on a good day, they don’t offer much of a view. In terms of my production levels it’s probably for the best!

Sometimes though, you do catch a bird flying by for a second or two. The swifts stuck about for longer. They alerted me through their constant high pitched whistling - one of my favourite sounds of the summer. And then they entertained me for a good quarter of an hour with their aerial display - one of my favourite sights of the summer. All in all, a lot more preferable than going through editorial revisions.

I have a special fondness and immense admiration for all migratory birds; the swallows, swifts, warblers etc in spring and summer; the redwings, fieldfare, waxwing (if we’re lucky), etc in the autumn and winter. Apart from a total respect for their energy levels and sense of direction - it’s reassuring to see that they still feel we’re worth visiting year after year despite the perils of their journey. 

For various reasons there have been sad declines in the number of many of these birds returning and several species are a lot rarer than I remember them being when I was younger. It would be devastating if we were to lose the likes of turtle doves, cuckoos and yellow wagtails forever. All the more reason to make sure we still have the countryside we need to tempt them back.

Anyhow, since I was supposed to be using this time to do some work I’ve decided to re-designate it for today’s ’30 Days Challenge’, which I think is fair enough and totally in the spirit of ‘switching off from the real world for a while’, although perhaps a better perspective on it all might be ‘tuning into the real world for a while’.

I just hope my editor will see it the same way should I fail to make my deadline!
Swift c. Stefan Johansson

Swift c. Stefan Johansson


Day 16 - Pond dipping

Just over half way through the ’30 Days Challenge’ and I realise I haven’t formally done pond dipping yet! I did go on a bit about my lily in the front pond a few days ago, which then decided to withdraw into a shell of petals the day after and submerge itself below the water, but I haven’t yet done what must be the top of any challenge list – pond dipping! What’s more I have a pond and a net. So no excuses…

Today after school, me, the little one, and his friend, took ourselves down to the water’s edge. Foolishly, I’d promised tadpoles.

It was clear after a few dips that the pond was bereft of tadpoles. I should have known, of course, having written back on day 2 how grown up the little fellas all were. Clearly, they’ve hopped off to explore a bigger brighter world!

And so it seemed that all we were left with was slime, duck weed and various rotting debris. It didn’t actually matter and we had plenty of fun dangling our toes in and throwing duck weed about. That in itself, is surely engaging with nature.

However, I knew there was more fun to have so I dug deep and pulled out a net full of mud. Carefully discarding the sludge bit-by-bit, we sure enough started to discover a whole world of mini-beasts writhing in the muck.

There were shrimp-like creatures of several different sizes. Once we were brave enough to handle them they crawled about on our open palms and made beeline for the safety of the water. There were beetles too with oars on either side of their body. And then there were what I’m sure must be leeches – worm-like with extra large mouth ends that seem to be searching for something to suck. I wasn’t sure but I wasn’t going to put it on my skin to prove the point!

We’ve done pond-dippings in the past that have yielded more, but these few aquatic friends were more than enough to stir the imagination and wonder in the young minds. Of course, if we were more serious, we’d have come equipped with jam jars and taken back specimens to the house to analysis. Maybe we will return and do this another day but for today at least, there was too much fun to be had with duck weed.


Day 17 - Planting mushrooms

Inspired by my ‘daring’ in eating a wild mushroom and surviving (see day 7) I looked into the idea of growing my own. I’d actually given this a go a few years back and bought a kit from a popular retail park DIY chain store and although it wasn’t a complete washout, it was hardly a great success either! It yielded a crop of two mushrooms roughly equating to a fiver each, not counting the hours of love and care they’d received over the weeks. I decided that buying mushrooms from the supermarket was probably a better option.

This time I decided to do a little more research. I found a very promising site on-line that offered a variety of more exotic looking fungi and furthermore were very happy to answer any queries I had. They explained the importance of using fresh spawn that should be kept refrigerated until used. This they said might explain my previous failure as far too often the kits you buy from high street stores contain spawn that may have been kept at the wrong temperature for weeks if not months.

My kit arrived today making it a convenient ’30 Days Wild’ challenge. None of the boys were impressed. They’ve never tried mushrooms but they know they’d hate them if they did. So it was clearly going to be up to me to get this one rolling. It came with a ‘use immediately’ label and three pages of instructions. I’m usually not very good at being told what to do but I as I really want this to work I sat down, read them and then read them again.

With the precision of a laboratory scientist I made sure that I added exactly 3 litres of boiling water to the bag of straw and then waited exactly eight hours for it cool down. I then doubly washed my hands before handling the spawn and then mixed it throughout the straw as evenly as is possible. I’m a little worried that my storage space might not be in the requisite 18-25°C range as I don’t have a thermometer. I’m keeping my finger crossed until I get one!

There’s now a 45 day wait until the next stage meaning you’ll never know how successful I am. But if all goes well, we should be enjoying fresh shiitake mushrooms for the following few months after. The boys will be overjoyed.


 


Day 18 - Birds in art

It’s probably not the first time I’ve started with these words but today’s ’30 Day Challenge’ is a bit of a cheat. Perhaps it’s not a cheat at all as I’m pretty sure anything goes so long as it connects you a little with nature. But it feels a tiny bit naughty as it involves me doing nothing more than sitting on my behind looking at books and pictures.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a fair size collection of bird books and paintings. Not that it was really planned – it just sort of happened. I find it difficult to visit a charity shop or jumble sale without leaving with some sort of avian artefact. The good news is that my collection hasn’t cost a fortune. The bad news is that it probably takes up more space than it should. It is mainly confined to my attic work room and some of it has actually made it up onto the walls! The rest is still waiting patiently on the ever diminishing floor space.

There are a couple of pictures that have been allowed to grace the walls of the living room. They also cost a little more than the others but then they are special. They are signed prints of etchings done by the Scottish musician Edwyn Collins. Edwyn was the singer with the Glasgow band Orange Juice, (Rip it Up – anyone over 50?). He also had a huge hit in the mid 90s with ‘A Girl Like You’. Back in early 2005 he suffered two cerebral haemorrhages which resulted in severe brain damage. In his own words they effectively deleted the contents of his mind. Over the subsequent years he has made an incredible recovery and is now back to writing and performing new material. His amazing story is told in the highly acclaimed documentary ‘The Possibilities are Endless’. He is also a great nature lover and extremely talented illustrator of wildlife (and in particular of birds).

In an interview with the Guardian, he said ‘I think my first real recovery began with my first bird drawing’ – proving beyond doubt what everyone doing the ’30 Day Challenge’ already knows – nature truly has the power to make us feel better and even maybe work the odd miracle or two.


Day 19 – Trying a cherry

While we were doing the wild flower garden last year we decided to add three fruit trees, to join the plum tree that was already there. We went for a couple of cross-pollinating apple trees and a cherry tree; the idea being that in years to come we’d have easy access to one of our five-a-day over the summer months. It would be a little something for us as a reward for giving over the rest of our garden to the birds and the bees. 

We also thought that one day the trees would provide the supports for our hammock. However, given their rate of growth over the last year I fear that by the time they are strong enough to fulfil this function I may be too old to crawl into one!

The cherry tree was for my wife. I don’t and never have liked that fruit. Incredibly last year, less than two months after having been put in the ground, it produced a perfect duo of cherries. Like a pair of fruity earrings. My wife ate them, proclaimed they were the best cherries she’d ever eaten and told me that I was mad not to try them. Not the wisest of moves since if I were to, and then fall in love with the fruit, she’d face competition for the meagre crop.

This year only one cherry has appeared so far. Without a partner it looks lonely and vulnerable. Cherries should always be in pairs, shouldn’t they? It got me to thinking why it is I don’t like cherries? It’s obviously a childhood thing, just one of those foods that you decide you never eat and forget to ever challenge later in life. And ironically, I’ll always go for a cherry-flavoured cough sweet. Seeing how I’m now at that stage in life where I’m trying to get my boys to try new flavours, it seems hypocritical not to take up the baton myself. So for today’s ‘30 Days Wild’ I decided to push back the boundaries of daring and go for a cherry, freshly plucked from the tree!

It turns out that I should have picked that cherry when I took a photo of it a couple of days ago because it also turns out that the birds don’t respect the rules of the garden. That cherry is no more. Perhaps it did have a partner after all and it went the same way. I like to think that was is the case.


 


Day 20 - Ant watching

I was having lunch in the garden today watching ants scurrying up and down the trunk of the small holly tree, which is planted beside my garden chair. Before I knew it, a quarter of an hour had passed and my omelette was cold. Either I’m easily distracted or ants are more interesting than I’d realised!

What I couldn’t quite work out was what exactly they were doing. There was a steady stream going up but an almost equal number coming down. I’ve watched ants before and noticed two things; either they’re all going somewhere en masse, which I presume means they’re on the hunt for new digs, or they’re carrying leaves back to their nest. On these occasions the leaf carriers will come across empty-handed ants travelling in the other direction. These I’ve always assumed are coming from the nest to look for more decaying foliage.

What got me about the ants at lunchtime is that no-one was carrying anything. I’ve always been led to believe that ant colonies are a well-oiled machine. Each ant knows exactly what it should be doing and does it. There is no such thing as a wasted ant hour. Admittedly a lot of this knowledge comes from the 1998 animated film ‘Antz’, but surely there’s some truth to this.

As far as I could see, these lunchtime insects were doing little other than taking a stroll, albeit a fairly frantic one at times. Some were even stopping for what could only be described as a brief spot of socialising with comrades coming in the opposite direction. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for nature taking a break. Most creatures seem to be in a continually day-to-day battle for survival as they strive to find enough food to keep them going, while constantly keeping their eyes peeled for any other animal who’d gobble them up given half the chance. It must be tiring being part of a food chain!

Relaxation seems to be a human luxury, although I’d extend that to include many dogs and cats I know too. Just maybe these ants were managing to get in a little ‘me-time’. I’m sure I’m horribly wrong as usual. But it would be nice to think they were.

PS: Apologies for today’s photo but trying to capture ants scurrying using the macro lens feature of a camera you barely know how to use, in the heat of the midday sun, while balancing on crutches isn’t easy. Plus there’s the fact that I’ve always been rubbish at photography!


Day 21 - Bird songs

A change of direction today. And after 20 days, I think we’re in need of that. This challenge is firmly based in front of the computer screen. No flora or fauna anywhere to be seen! It’s also enormously self-indulgent. - more so than ever.

One of my other great loves in life is music. I recently bought a record player and jumped on the vinyl revival bandwagon. I grew up with lps and 45s and I’d forgotten how much fun playing a record is. Like everyone else I’d been seduced by the ever increasing practicalities of CDs and then in turn by downloading and streaming. 

As my small vinyl collection increases, I realise I’ve really missed the ritual of taking that disc out of its cover, putting it on the turntable, listening reassuringly to that faint crackle heralding the start of each new track, and then following the lyrics in a print size that I don’t need a magnifying glass to read! And then there’s the art work. Today’s photo is the album cover for a new record by Okkervil River called ‘Away’. You can’t appreciate something like this on your iphone screen. (It comes in white vinyl and contains one side of nothing but bird song too – all my Christmases come at once!) 

Vinyl, like nature, is also something that I think I have the duty to introduce my boys to, although after a little initial enthusiasm - they now reach for their headphones and electronic devices every time I get up and head towards the stereo.

Anyway, none of this has anything to do with today’s challenge, which ironically is actually only made possible by the ease of all those modern musical formats I’ve just dismissed. Today’s ’30 Days Wild’ involves me searching the music database on my PC to find bird songs and then compiling my all time top ten. A tenuous link perhaps, but I promise I’m thinking about each species as I do it.

The list, of course, is purely personal and my taste in music is often most kindly described as ‘acquired’. It is, however, non-negotiable, but feel free to check out any of these tracks. They’re all great and available somewhere for free on the Internet.

1 - I like birds – Eels
2 - Starlings of the Slipstream - Pavement
3 - Gulls – The Handsome Family
4 - Redwings – Guillemots 
5 -Hummingbirds – Wilco
6 - Mockingbirds – Grant Lee Buffalo
7 - Hundreds of Sparrows – Sparklehorse
8 - Blackbird – Madness
9 -Ride a White Swan – T Rex
10 - Oriole – Afghan Whigs
 


Day 22 – Making bird food

I decided the kids hadn’t done much for a while, so I stuck out a hand as they raced through the front door on return from school. I caught the little one. The perfect child for what I had planned for today’s ’30 Days Wild’. Something potentially messy and a chance to get your hands dirty! We are making our own bird food.

Unsurprisingly, Delia doesn’t have a recipe, so it was on to the Internet for guidance. The list of ingredients was quite accessible, and most of them we had somewhere in the food cupboards. First up was suet (naturally), though we had to dig a little deeper for this as it hadn’t been used since making stuffing balls for Christmas. It smelt quite fresh and was still well within the sell-by date, so in it went to our large glass bowl. Next up were raisins. The recipe didn’t specify what size, but as ours were quite large we cut them into quarters, so as not to choke smaller beaked birds. Well, there is a responsibility here for the birds’ welfare that we take seriously. For that very same reason, I decided against dry-roasted peanuts (though the little one was very much in favour of adding). As they were the only peanuts we had, that ingredient had to be omitted. Cheese was a much easier option. We had a variety in the fridge, stilton, brie, halloumi and even paneer. We went for grated cheddar. Finally bird seed. Again, no problem there. As I’ve mention before, we have a 12.5kg sack of Nyjer seeds in the garage to get rid of. Here was the perfect chance to use up a few grams!

Ingredients in the bowl, it was time to mash it all together, and then press it into the coconut shells. This was where I thought the little one would really come into his element. But he didn’t like the feel of it so it was up to me. I think he thought we were making biscuits and was very disappointed that the dough was not for trying.

He did hang the shells up on the feeder, and sat back with me on the sofa to enjoy the feeding frenzy. Half an hour later, two starlings had taken a peck, but neither returned. The little one missed that though as he was busy watching Peppa Pig!


Day 23 – Daydreaming

I had a hospital appointment today so I knew any elaborate nature quest was going to be tricky. Time for some thinking outside the box!

A prominent German-Brazilian ornithologist called Helmut Sick who found himself imprisoned in Brazil during WWII because of his ethnic background, apparently used his three years incarceration to identify several new species of fleas, that kept him company in his cell. I hasten to add that I am in no way comparing a trip to hospital with a lengthy spell in a 1940’s Brazilian jail, but the reason I mention the story is that I thought ‘why not take today’s ’30 Days Wild’ challenge indoors’, and use the time I would inevitably be kept waiting to look for signs of mini-life in the corridors.

What sounded like an ingenious idea was thwarted by two unforeseen circumstances. Firstly, the hospital was free from creepy crawlies, which is probably a good thing. And secondly I was in and out in 40 minutes! 40 minutes to remove a plaster cast, see the consultant, and get fitted with a Robocop boot. Amazing and a huge credit to the hospital. However, and not wanting to sound ungrateful, it had left me without a challenge for the day – or had it?

Although I was in and out before I knew it, I did have a wait for ten minutes before I saw the doctor. I will also admit to feeling a little trepidation. It had been four weeks since I last saw anything more of my lower right leg than the purple ends of my toes. I wasn’t too sure what to expect, and as I have a natural tendency to fear the worse, all sorts of morbid scenarios were playing in my head.

I had taken a book to help distract me but it wasn’t working! The words just wouldn’t sit still.
But what did take my mind off things was a bit of daydreaming. The one thing I have really been missing is getting out on my bike and riding along the Dee, and out to the marshes at Neston –something I try to do once a week.

It’s a round trip that I’m sure most cyclists do in an hour or so but it always takes me at least three because the exercise is really just an excuse to get out, see the birds, and try to break the 50 species mark for the day. So while my eyes were slipping from the pages of my book, my mind was taking me on a mental bike ride, stopping off at all the best spots, and ticking off my favourite species. I had just seen my first yellow wagtail of the summer when the nurse called me through. Nature had once again saved me from the perils of life!


Day 24 – A mystery beast

It’s at times like this when I realise how rubbish I am at nature. My eye was caught, in the garden today by a small red blob attached to a leaf. On closer inspection, it was clearly living. I also saw it had a few black marks on its back. My first impression was that it was some sort of bloated, yet shrivelled up ladybird. I believe that description is a fine example of an oxymoron, and probably best avoided in good prose. But take a look at the photo. How else would you describe it?

Anyway, there is, of course, no such thing as a ‘bloated yet shrivelled up’ ladybird - so I decided to look elsewhere. There was one other creature that it did remind me of. A nemesis from the days when I lived in Brazil! I’d seen plenty of them there, gorging on the skin of my dog, filling their bodies with his blood until their skin stretched to bursting point. But in Brazil they had always been grey. Was it possible that the British variety was multi-coloured?

There are few things in the natural word that I’m truly frightened of but the tic is one. I believe that the old adage ‘animals are more scared of us than we are of them’ is generally true, and I would include in this the various snakes, that used to visit our house and gardens in Brazil. But tics aren’t scared. They’re not scared at all. They lurk in the tall grass waiting for you to brush past. They silently sneak on to you, and make their way slowly to a body crevice to start feasting. It can be days later before you detect their presence. And then begins the whole rigmarole of removing them without leaving their limbs, and a whole host of diseases inside you. No, tics are not pleasant at all!

Could this be a tic? Well could it? I googled ‘red bloated tic’ – an image search. I’m not doing that again, and would recommend you don’t either. It confirmed every reason I have to fear this beast, but it also provided some relief; red ticks do exist but look nothing like this.

So what was this creature making its home amongst my foliage? And then I went back to my initial instincts. A ladybird of some sort? A ladybird egg? A ladybird shell? A ladybird cocoon? Surely there’s no such thing? I googled and there is, and they look just like what I have in my photo. As I said, it’s at times like this when I realise how rubbish I am at nature.